What did he know and when did he know it?
That’s a question audiences inevitably ask about the central character of David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” a bold exercise in fragmented, nonlinear storytelling that nonetheless became a Broadway hit in 1988.
This play has always been a frustrating viewing experience for me because it seems to offer more than it ultimately delivers. Chief among its virtues are two complex roles that actors can sink their teeth into. And Hwang creates opportunities for moments of spectacle by evoking song, dance and stylized martial arts from traditional Peking Opera. But its coy, post-modern approach, which presents the narrative not in chronological order but as a shuffle of memories, can try a viewer’s patience. Based on real events, Hwang’s play depicts the reflections of Rene Gallimard, a disgraced French diplomat, who from his prison cell recalls his 20-year affair with Song Liling, a star of the Peking Opera. Song, we quickly learn, is a female impersonator working as a spy for the Chinese government during America's war in Vietnam. And Gallimard, assigned to the French embassy in Beijing, is only too happy to share what he knows about U.S. war plans.
Gallimard's insistence, at least in the early going, that he never knew his lover’s true gender is as preposterous to the viewers as it is to cocktail-swilling Parisians who crack waggish jokes about how the lovers must have kept the lights very low, indeed.
But Hwang's two main narrative threads — a love story and a tale of espionage — are the foundation for the play's serious concerns about gender, sexuality and the traditional European chauvinistic view of Asia. Some of Hwang’s points seem obvious while others are a bit murky. He mixes satire and occasionally farcical humor, most of which hits the bull's eye, with elements of operatic tragedy, which don't work nearly as well. One way Hwang strives to hold our interest is by offering a fair number of memorably lurid moments and a couple of instances of arguably unnecessary nudity. Despite inherent problems in the material, the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production directed by Linda Ade Brand is an overall impressive effort, thanks largely to bravura work by Robert Gibby Brand as Gallimard and Vi Tran as Song. Committed actors are not unusual on Kansas City stages, but Brand and Tran up the ante with immersive performances that magnetically draw the viewer in.
Brand enunciates Gallimard’s internal conflicts and inconsistent views of his own sexuality, while Tran captures the inherent tension of a “decadent” actor who who must perform on multiple levels to satisfy the demands of his Communist Party handlers. The supporting players — Amy Kelly as a succession of young women, Bob Paisley as Gallimard’s supercilious friend Marc and Nancy Nail as Helga, Gallimard’s wife — deliver strong work. Indeed, a scene in which Gallimard tells Helga he wants a divorce is one of the most dramatically effective in the show. Alan Tilson, as the French ambassador and later as a judge, is entertainingly broad. Erika Crane Ricketts makes an impression in three roles, particularly with her comic take on Comrade Chin.
Jamie H. J. Guan, who choreographed the Peking Opera sequences, achieves an admirable degree of limited spectacle with modest resources. The “sword dance,” performed by Song in his female warrior persona, is an absorbing few minutes of pure theater, and a flag-waving snippet from the Peking Opera during the Cultural Revolution creates an indelible image.
The design elements are effective, particularly the lighting by Lacey Pacheco. Costume designer Genevieve Beller creates a succession of vivid outfits, although apparently some of the Peking Opera costumes were rented.
The play’s structure — relatively short scenes strung together cinematically — would pose a challenge for any small theater. In this production there’s quite a bit of carrying furniture on and off the stage during scene transitions, which creates minor distractions. For the most part, however, this is an ambitious undertaking that succeeds to a large degree.
“M. Butterfly” runs through Jan. 26 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. For more information, call 816-569-3226 or go to KCMET.org.